Tom’s Pizza

I had intended to write an in-depth review of Tom’s Pizza last Saturday. In my pocket, I carried my trusty digital camera, my beer notebook (devoted to notes on tastings and reviews) and a passion for documenting Iowa Hawkeye football, being an alum of University of Iowa Journalism program.

Toms 128\" TV and a plethora of Hawkeye Fans

Apparently, it has been a long time since I was a “real” journalist, as I quickly abandoned my ambition and observer status when I walked in the front door. Greeting me were more televisions than I could count, each flat , widescreen displaying a different football game. 20 taps lined the bar, containing a trusty selection of Oregon microbrews. And when I saw another table order pizza … it was all over.

Toms 14\" Pizza Covered in Meat

Andrew and I split the Tom’s Triple Play, 14 inches of delicious, buttery and chewy crust topped with at least 30 pounds of meat. Maybe not 30, but as you can see from the photo, the cheese was barely visible. What was shocking was that this was not a greasy pizza. Most meat-covered pizza oozes puddles of grease, but not this one. Now, I am not saying that the American Heart Association is going to endorse Tom’s, but it was extremely edible. I ate half the pizza and didn’t feel gross at all. Of course, I was washing it down with:

  • 1 pitcher Tom’s IPA (brewed by Cascade Lakes Brewing), too lightly-hopped and thin for my taste, but not bad if there weren’t alternatives like:
  • 2 pitchers Bridgeport IPA, followed by
  • 1 pitcher Widmer Hefeweizen. washed down with
  • 1 pitcher Drop Top Amber and finally, a return to
  • 1 pitcher Bridgeport IPA

Yes, that is a lot of beer. And no, there weren’t 10 people drinking. There were 3. But this was the Iowa-Ohio State game, and if you’ve ever been to a Big Ten tailgate, you will know that this is small beer.

A note on the pitchers: Tom’s Pizza may be one of the last places in town you can get full-sized pitchers. Too many places have pitchers that hold exactly 3 pints – not Tom’s. There are at least 4 pints per pitcher here, making for a pretty good value.

Dan sampled the Mozzarella sticks later on, but they were gone by the time it occurred to me to ask to try one. As wife Emily said, “When it comes to Dan and Mozzarella sticks, watch your fingers or you might lose one.”

With a pizza, the app, and 6 pitchers, we were pretty scared when the bill came, but were happily surprised when the total came to less than $80 … not bad for 5 hours of football spectatorship.

Probably the best thing about Tom’s are the people you see there. Never having been there before, I was a bit wary of the unfamiliar location. However, I encountered 5 University of Iowa alumni I knew previously, but had not known would be there. Plus, absolutely everyone else was friendly. I was wearing an Iowa sweatshirt, and no less than 4 people gave me high-fives and “Go Hawks” calls on the way in. The wait staff was extremely attentive and friendly.

Tom’s Pizza: My New Favorite Sports Bar.

2630 N Lombard St
Portland, OR 97217

El Bait Shop

On previous return trips to Des Moines, I have seen evidence of a growing awareness of craft beers. For me, it began with Sam Adams being carried at the Greenwood Lounge (Des Moines’ oldest bar) many years ago, followed by Summit and Boulevard’s beers appearing on menus at restaurants around town. Local breweries like Racoon River Brewing and Court Avenue have also helped immensely. The trend has escalated rapidly in recent years, with new downtown beer bars The Royal Mile (Scottish-style pub with lots of Scotch/British/Irish beers) and The Red Monk (Great Belgian bottle selection). I have sampled eagerly each of the new offerings, and found one thing or another lacking (The Red Monk being probably the smokiest bar I have ever been in). I am undoubtedly a beer snob, but I know what I like.

Des Moines\' Greenwood Lounge

I like “El Bait Shop,” a new beer bar that has opened on the south side of Des Moines’ downtown area, at the site of the original Hairy Mary’s. For those following at home, Hairy Mary’s is a Des Moines icon, a tiny music venue/bar that’s been host to many “I-saw-them-when” bands like the Smashing Pumpkins, Dave Matthews, etc. It’s not the Fillmore, but for Des Moines, it rocks.

Anyway … I was going to write a big huge review of this place like I did for the Raccoon River Brewing, but Juice’s Tim Paluch wrote one a lot better that I wholeheartedly agree with.

El Bait Shop has 100s of Beers on Tap

Instead, I will give you a list of the beers I consumed that night while playing an amazing fishing arcade game (Sega Bass Fishing). If the list seems obscenely long, note that El Bait Shop has 100s of beers on tap and in bottles. Also remember that I was imbibing with friends from high school that I see pretty infrequently. (That disclaimer was for my mom).

Flying Dog\'s Snakedog IPA Label
  1. Flying Dog Snake IPA: Nicely balanced draught with plenty of hops. Second choice when I discovered they were out of Three Floyd’s Alpha King. My first beer in a week with 6%+ abv and the flavor-carrying power shows.
  2. Breckenridge Brewing’s Avalanche Amber: Clear and refreshing, malty but crisp with light German hops and fine carbonation. Reminds me a lot of Full Sail’s Amber. On draught.
  3. Goose Island IPA: Chicago brewery with a northwest-style IPA. Nice floral hops and good bitterness with high drinkability. Somewhere between a Deschutes Inversion and Bridgeport IPA. On draught.
  4. Saranac Pale: Clear. I stopped taking notes as I got more involved in the fishing. Mellow, low alcohol (whew!) and very drinkable. The tap handle was a canoe, which I thought was cool. On draught.
  5. Flying Dog Horn Dog Barleywine: Whoa, alcohol. Sweet, but delicious. Very malty, not much hops. Almost syrupy. Bottle.
  6. Great Divide DPA (Denver Pale Ale): Bottle, tasty IPA reminiscent of Red Hook IPA. Bottle.
  7. Dogfish Head 60-minute: Had it before, delicious as always. Bottle.

Raccoon River Brewing

I just got back from visiting the family in Iowa and Minnesota, and was able to sample a fair number of local-ish brews. We’ll start, as Sarah and I did, in Des Moines, with the Raccoon River Brewing Company.

Raccoon River has been open in Des Moines since I left in 2001, and while I was interested in beer in those days, I wasn’t interested enough to drive downtown for a sample very often. When I lived in Des Moines, it was a bit of a singles scene after work, and an older crowd. On the plus side, there have always been full-size pool tables, and until 3 weeks ago, a healthy (or not) cigar smoking area upstairs.

Josh Carlson and Gabe Lueders playing pool at Raccoon River Brewing

I ventured downtown on Sunday with Sarah to meet pals Gabe Lueders and Josh Carlson. I was also re(?)-introduced to Scott, who is manager at Raccoon River, and a good friend of Gabe’s from the local disc golf scene. Scott was a patient and knowledgeable source of beer info as he proceed to whip Gabe and I on the pool tables.

My first sample was their Bandit IPA, touted as their “strongest and most highly hopped ale.” My advice: don’t tell someone from the west coast that your beer is hoppy or strong and then act surprised when they tell you it isn’t. Which is not to say this beer wasn’t good, but no comparison to a C-Note or even the milder Bridgeport IPA. A clear, golden beer with a nice creamy mouthfeel and very elegant carbonation, almost nitro in nature. This nice, low-carb mouthfeel was to persist across the Raccoon River beers I tasted. Bandit IPA would be a good session, or “lawn-mowing” IPA.

Next up was the Scotch Ale, an interesting story in itself. Apparently, the beer is based on a homebrew recipe from Mark Simpson that took “Best of Show” and won Mark “Homebrewer of the Year” status at the American Homebrewers Association (AHA) 2006 Homebrew Competition under a former small-batch name of “Sand Hill Scottie.” I didn’t get to taste the 10-gallon version Mark made, but head brewer Dave Coy’s high-capacity version of the beer was pretty tasty, with a ton of maltiness and just a touch of Belgian-type funky sourness to it. Hops were just barely discernible, probably something German or English, I’d guess. Not the best beer I’ve ever had, but a solid and creamy, drinkable beer, very true to its category.

You can listen to an interview with Mark Simpson and Charlie Papazian on WOI’s web site in Real Player format.

My final beer was a new, seasonal Pilsener that was just released (replacing the West Coast Wheat I was looking forward to trying out). Billed by Scott as “if-you-like-hops-you-will-love-our-pilsener,” it was hoppier than the IPA, but not by a lot. Still, this was a very refreshing beer, with crisp apple notes, subtle hops and a very mellow malt presence. Did I mention creamy?

Overall, I was pleased to drink some local brews, but the beers at Raccoon River are just not yet in a position to compete with more flavorful micros being produced elsewhere in the country. As a former native, I think I can (without sounding too elitist) say that Des Moines is in its heart still a Bud Light town, and while the brews at Raccoon River are pushing tastes pretty far from St. Louis, they’re nowhere near the rest of the country yet. I was to receive more evidence of this phenomenon a few days later …

On a final note, I think some of the beers’ average-ness may be in some part a matter of chemistry. According to Iowa liquor laws, no beer brewed in the state can top 6% abv. While there are plenty of great beers being brewed elsewhere in the country at or below that artificial threshold, it is a chemical truth that more complex flavors tend to be carried by alcohol. More alcohol, more complexity. More complexity, better beer. Were Iowa brewers given a little more leeway with their alcohol content, I think you’d see some more interesting beers.

For a more thorough look at Iowa’s arcane beer laws, visit LiftTheLimit.org

Many thanks to Scott for the beers, the info and the pool lesssons. And happy wedding!

Tugboat Brewing

I read the reviews on Citysearch and was prepared for the worst from this micro-micro-brewery. That and it’s extra-low profile. I consider myself a bit of a local beer nerd, and I just learned of this place a month or so ago.

Andrew and I headed over after work yesterday to investigate, and entered the bar at about 5:30. It was lightly populated, and the pigtailed barkeep quickly poured us a couple of Hop Golds, which I think I’d describe as a hybrid Pale Ale and IPA. She told us there was a lot of hops to it (I’d asked for their IPA, which was out), all Cascade in the brew and some more Cascade as a dry hop. Sounds like my kind of beer. We headed for a booth by the window, so we could see what we were drinking. The bar is pretty dark, though cozy.

With the first sip, the shocking thing was the plain aroma of grapefruit. Smelled just like grapefruit juice. If I was blind, I would have assumed it was grapefruit juice. Serious grapefruit juice aroma. I could have been drinking beer in a grapefruit grove. Its Latin name would be beerus grapefruiticus. Are you getting the picture?

But it was good. Very creamy with a finely-laced head and opaque in the pint glass (I held it up to one of the few windows and golden it was). Refreshing. Bitter. Grapefruit aroma. I could have had a few of them, and it was especially good after a brisk walk in the warm weather. The grapefruit subsided a bit as I neared the bottom of the pint, and bitter came forward. But the grapefruit remained right up there. SERIOUS grapefruit.

For our next set, Andrew got a “Dark House” which seemed to fit in the porter category, with plenty of hop bitterness. And grapefruit.

I got the ESB, and it was pretty similar to the Hop Gold, with a little more malt, which was a better balance to the … you guessed it … grapefruity hoppy bitterness. A well-balanced, creamy-headed 16oz. serving of goodness. For the low-low happy hour price of $2.50. Only New Old Lompoc has cheaper pints.

After a couple of brews apiece, Andrew and I were feeling a little tipsy. A bit surprising for a couple of enterprising drinkers, and I pegged both beers as fairly alcoholic, in the 6-6.5% range. The male bartender confirmed my suspicions, stating that most Tugboat brews are in the are 6-7% abv. Damn, I’m good.

One mystery remains: where in the world did all that grapefruit come from? It wasn’t unpleasant, but it was distinctive. As a confesssed hophead, I have never encountered this strong a citrus flavor, nor one so definitively specific. Could it be the yeast? After all, what would so many Cascade hops be doing in a porter?

Futher investigation may be neccessary.